The Islamic State’s Targeting Strategy in Egypt
Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 3
The Egyptian government’s state of alert, under which dozens of activists were arrested ahead of the fifth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, did not prevent militants from the Islamic State group in Sinai from claiming the lives of several policemen and soldiers across the country’s provinces. The violence underlines the Egyptian state’s continuing struggle to control Islamic State-related activity in the country, particularly in the Sinai Peninsula, where the group’s Egyptian branch is based and where it is most active. Recent attacks by Islamic State show two clear trends: attacks on the security services and targeting of tourists and the tourism industry.
Attacks on the Security Forces
In the Sinai Peninsula, at least five Egyptian army soldiers were killed and 12 were wounded when an armored personnel carrier exploded on the outskirts of the city of Arish, according to security and medical sources (Al-Youm al-Sabae, January 27). Unidentified militants had reportedly planted a roadside explosive charge and remotely detonated it as a military vehicle passed (Al-Masry Al-Youm, January 27).
The following day in the same city, a roadside bomb planted near a school hit another armored personnel vehicle, claiming the lives of three soldiers and wounding five others (Al-Masry Al-Youm, January 28). Later that day, a heavy exchange of fire between soldiers and militants killed four children and wounded seven south of Rafah, near Egypt’s eastern border with the Palestinian Gaza Strip. The Rafah hospital said that the children fell victim to the use of heavy weapons; some were buried under rubble when buildings were hit and consequently collapsed (Akhbar Al-Youm, January 28).
In Arish city on November 24, a stronghold of Islamic State militants, Wilayat Sinai – the group’s franchise in Egypt formerly known as Ansar Bait al-Maqdis (ABM) – also claimed responsibility for a double suicide attack on a hotel, leaving seven dead, including two judges, as well 14 others wounded, according to Health Ministry spokesperson Khaled Megahedas (Al-Shorouk, November 25, 2015). The two assailants had attacked the hotel where judges tasked with supervising parliamentary polls were staying.
Investigations suggested that a booby-trapped car was used to attack the security personnel stationed at the hotel and in the ensuing havoc, a militant sneaked into the hotel and opened fire on passersby until he was shot to death by a policeman (Al-Arabiya, November 24, 2015). In a statement circulated by Islamic State-affiliated accounts on social media, the militant group said the operation has been carried out by two suicide attackers in retaliation for what they call “the military’s arrest and humiliation of Muslim women in military checkpoints” . On January 6, 2016, the group additionally released footage of the execution of nine people who it accused of being agents of the Egyptian security services, as well as announcing a list of 37 wanted individuals wanted by the Islamic State, including prominent tribal chiefs (MubashirMisr, January 6).
Just days ahead of the fifth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution on January 25 in which long time autocrat Hosni Mubarak was overthrown, seven policemen and three civilians were killed during a police raid on a militant hideout in Giza province, west of Cairo (Al-Ahram al-Masai, January 22). Al-Watan newspaper reported that during the raid, a large explosion occurred when “four Muslim Brotherhood militants” opened fire on policemen who were storming their apartment – which had been used to manufacture explosive charges – when one bullet hit a device and detonated the other 14 (Al-Watan, January 22). The resulting cluster explosion was so significant that it led to the collapse of four floors in the building. However, state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram reported that Wilayat Sinai claimed credit for the incident in a statement issued the following day and disseminated through its alleged Twitter accounts. The statement said that the 10 Egyptian police personnel were killed when they entered a "booby-trapped" house (Al-Ahram, January 22). However, just one hour after the announcement, another militant group called "Revolutionary Punishment" claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement on Facebook. The reportedly Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated group claimed that it had lured police to the apartment, and after storming the building, two of the group’s members carried out a suicide bombing which killed a former state security police officer, among others (Al-Masry Al-Youm, January 23). It remains unclear whether the incident was a deliberate attempted to ‘trap’ the policeman or if the explosion was accidental.
Attacks on Tourism Sector
In addition to targeting security forces, Wilayat Sinai has claimed responsibility in recent weeks for several large-scale operations against tourists and tourist locations. Such claims include the taking of credit for the bombing of a Russian passenger aircraft in Sinai on October 31, which killed all 227 people on board (Al-Hayat, October 31, 2015). This incident dealt a major blow to the country’s already ailing tourism sector. The fatal crash led foreign airlines to suspend their flights to Red Sea resorts following widespread reports that security system at the airports did not meet international standards of safety.
Having largely wiped out the foreign tourist trade in the Sinai Peninsula, militants then turned to Hurghada resort, located further down the Red Sea on the Egyptian mainland. On January 8, 2016, three Europeans were targeted in a Hurghada hotel by two assailants armed with knives. A statement from the Interior Ministry added that the two attackers had been neutralized – one shot dead and another wounded and arrested. Commenting on the accident, Minister of Tourism Hisham Zazou said such attacks were destroying all efforts that the ministry had made to encourage the flow of foreign tourism to the country (Al-Watan, January 9). 
Further damaging Egypt’s tourism industry was the accidental slaying of tourists by the military in mid-September 2015; the military had accidentally killed 12 Mexican tourists and injured ten in the Western Desert. The military mistakenly launched an aerial attack on the group with an airplane and helicopters after suspecting the group, who were traveling off-road in jeeps, were terrorists (Al-Shorouk, September 14, 2015).
As a result of these incidents, 2015 tourism revenues dropped 15 percent and the number of incoming tourists declined by 6 percent, according to Egyptian Ministry of Tourism (Al-Youm Al-Sabae, January 18, 2016). According to the Ministry, 9.3 million tourists visited Egypt last year, while tourism revenues for the year stand at a total of USD 6.1 billion. The impact in 2016 is liable to be even greater.
Egypt appears to be caught between a rock and a hard place. Terrorism is rising despite intensive counter-insurgency campaigns, while the government simultaneously panics from the seeds of social movements planted by the Arab Spring revolutions in 2011. As a result, the security apparatus is struggling. Instead of having a smart and effective strategy to dismantle the terrorist networks in Sinai, the government instead seems distracted with detaining and imprisoning thousands of activists and independent journalists in Cairo and the Delta. For instance, during the past few years on the anniversary of the 2011 uprisings, the security apparatus arrested at least 150 activists and journalists, according to local media estimates; 23 Journalists were arrested in 2015, which made the Committee to Protect Journalists rank Egypt as the second worst jailer of journalists worldwide following China. These numbers supplement the myriad reports of oppositionists ‘disappear[ing]’ and being tortured in prison. Moreover, while militant groups in Egypt are evolving, the government insists on its old-style policy, such as excluding and repressing critics.
At the same time, the tourism sector, which had relatively flourished under former president Hosni Mubarak, is significantly declining. The Egyptian economy is flailing, with foreign investment also diminishing as insurgencies gain ground. There also exists the danger that the government’s repressive policies that incite violence, sectarianism and closure of avenues for peaceful dissent will lead some to take the path of radical jihad.
Muhammad Mansour is an investigative journalist who covers a broad range of topics related to Egyptian politics and Middle Eastern affairs.